It’s not just Trader Joe’s battling bacteria and possibly plastic in its prepared products—Food and drink recalls have reached a five-year high



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Trader Joe’s has had a recall reckoning: Early this month, the California grocery chain recalled over 61,000 pounds of steamed chicken soup dumplings for possibly containing plastic from a permanent marker. In February, it recalled multiple salad kits and dressings containing cotija cheese over listeria concerns.

It’s not just Trader Joe’s issuing an influx of recalls. Warnings for consumer products, including groceries, have reached the highest numbers in years. In 2023, 199.7 million food and drink product units were impacted by 506 recall events, according to Sedgwick Brand Protection’s 2024 State of the Nation Recall Index report—a five-year high. Recalls in 2023 were up 19.6% from 2022’s 423 recalls, and eclipsed even 2019’s 498 recalls. This year appears to continue 2023’s trend: There were 46 food and drink recalls in January, a 31% increase from 2023’s fourth-quarter monthly average of 35 recalls.

“It is clear that strict regulatory enforcement is more than a passing trend,” Chris Harvey, Sedgwick’s senior vice president of brand protection, said in a press release. “2024 will see continued oversight from regulators, policymakers, and consumers, making it essential for businesses to plan and practice for product recalls and in-market crises.”

From lead-laced cinnamon to rubber potentially in 35,430 pounds of Johnsonville turkey kielbasa sausage, contaminated products pose a threat to both consumers and companies. The CDC reported that the February listeria outbreak, which impacted Trader Joes, Costco, and Walmart, sickened at least 26 and resulted in two deaths. Listeriosis kills about 260 people annually and about 1,600 become ill, according to the CDC. About 48 million people in the U.S. get a foodborne sickness every year.

While Trader Joe’s did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment or provide information on how recalls impacted earnings, other industries have experienced the impact of recalls on the bottom line. In 2021, following a recall of 125,000 treadmills over safety concerns, Peloton CFO Jill Woodworth said the revenue impact of the recall would be $165 million. Toyota Motor’s shares dipped 4% after it announced the recall of 1.1 million vehicles and investigated other safety concerns in December.

More recalls, more dangers? Not always

While seeing more recalls may be jarring to consumers, it’s not necessarily an indication more things are going awry in food production.

Keith Belk, head of the Center for Meat Safety and Quality at Colorado State University, told ABC in September that improved technology, such as X-rays and metal detectors, has made it easier to detect foreign materials in food. 

These technological improvements have been bolstered by the U.S. Congress’s enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, which expanded food-safety laws and increased the FDA’s power to order recalls. Meaningful changes have been made across the production chain. After the FSMA’s passage, the Mexican horticultural sector, the largest provider of U.S. horticultural imports, invested in new sampling techniques and infrastructure, as well as ensured the use of clean water through all stages of production, according to an August 2023 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. These changes did not slow down Mexico’s export growth.

Still, there are recall cases that slip through the cracks. The leading reason for recalls over the past six years is unlabeled allergens, which accounted for 42 recalls in last year’s fourth quarter, according to the Sedgwick report. A 25-year-old dancer in New York died in January after eating a mislabeled cookie which contained peanuts. Federal law dictates that the nine leading allergens, including peanuts and soy, be listed on food packaging when relevant.

While the FDA’s goal is to mitigate foodborne illness, it’s not able to reduce contaminants—and therefore recalls—to zero. The FDA has established action levels, or a threshold that takes into account natural or unavoidable defects, for the express reason that it can’t eliminate every threat to consuming certain foods.

“The thing is, there’s never going to be a day where there’s zero risk associated with consuming a food product,” Belk said.

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